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Parents’ Misperceptions Can Lead Kids to Marijuana

Study finds parents' beliefs and children's marijuana use have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect.

Marijuana use is common for a substantial minority of U.S. teenagers, and parents of teen children naturally have an interest in preventing or discouraging this use. However, parents don’t always accurately perceive their children’s level of drug involvement. This means that some parents inaccurately think their teens smoke marijuana, while other parents inaccurately think their teens don’t smoke marijuana. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from California’s Claremont Graduate University looked at the ways in which parents’ misperceptions about their teenagers’ current marijuana use affect those children’s odds of using the drug in the near future.

Current Usage Rates

Every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse monitors the rates for drug and alcohol use among American 8th graders, 10th graders and high school seniors. According to figures gathered from 130 nationally representative schools in 2012, slightly less than 23 percent of U.S. high school seniors smoke marijuana in the average month. For 10th graders, the average monthly use rate is 17 percent; roughly 6.5 percent of 8th graders also smoke the drug in the average month. Daily, monthly and yearly use rates have been rising among 12th graders and 10th graders since the start of 2007. Daily eighth-grade use has also gone up over the same span of time. These trends mark a reversal of the long-term decline in teen marijuana use that occurred between the tail end of the 1990s and 2007.

The Importance of Parental Influence

In one way or another, parents play a primary role in forming their children’s attitudes toward drugs and alcohol, as well as their children’s chances of becoming actively involved in substance use/abuse. As a rule, parents can decrease their children’s risks for drug or alcohol involvement by doing such things as educating themselves about the risks of substance use, setting firm rules against substance use, monitoring their children for the common signs of drug or alcohol intake, establishing consequences for the violation of any substance-related rules, enacting those consequences whenever appropriate and maintaining a consistent parent-child dialogue outside of the context of substance-related crises. With or without any clear intentions, parents who fail to take these steps can increase their children’s likelihood of participating in substance use. Parents who hold openly or implicitly permissive attitudes toward drugs and alcohol also increase their children’s risks, as do parents affected by their own substance-related issues.

The Impact of Parental Misperceptions

Despite their best efforts, parents can make mistakes when monitoring their children for signs of drug use. In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the Claremont Graduate University researchers used information from a nationwide project called the National Survey of Parents and Youth to determine what can happen when parents misperceive their teen children’s involvement in marijuana use. All told, information was gathered from 3,131 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, as well as from the parents of those adolescents. The teen participants were split fairly evenly between girls and boys. In addition, the researchers selected teenagers from a representative mix of ethnic backgrounds.

At the beginning of the study period, some of the participating adolescents used marijuana, while others did not. The researchers concluded that, when teens who didn’t use marijuana were treated as marijuana users by their parents, their chances of fulfilling their parents’ expectations and beginning marijuana use within the following year increased substantially. In fact, the marijuana-abstinent teens who were misjudged by their parents started smoking marijuana more than 300 percent more often than the marijuana-abstinent teens whose parents accurately perceived them as non-users.

Interestingly, the researchers also concluded that the opposite situation held true for the marijuana-using teens whose parents inaccurately perceived them to be free from marijuana intake. When their parents treated them as non-users, these adolescents stopped using the drug in the following year nearly 200 percent more often than the teens whose parents accurately viewed them as marijuana smokers.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in Addictive Behaviors believe their findings show how parents’ expectations regarding drug use trickle down to their children in both positive and negative ways. In essence, when it comes to drug use, teens tend to become what their parents perceive them to be. The authors note that their information comes from adolescents’ self-reports about their marijuana use, not from objectively gathered figures. This means that the true relationship between parental expectations and teen marijuana intake may potentially differ to one degree or another from the relationship indicated by the study’s findings.

Posted on January 16th, 2014
Posted in Teens

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